Everyone does this.
You’re listening to your friend, relative, parole officer _ whoever _ and you stop paying attention. This person might be your best friend since third grade. This person might be married to your sister. This person might be the only one keeping you from going to prison _ again.
Yet no matter how excited your friend is to tell you about the dream she had last night _ the one where her ex-boyfriend is run over by a train (“Does that mean anything?”) _ you can’t help but feel your involvement in the conversation is incidental. So you stop listening.
Your brain says, “That’s it. I’m shutting down all conscience thought. Put the flying toasters screensaver up. It’s nap time.”
Your mind actually tells itself not to think. This is like your dog saying, “It is inappropriate to lick my nether-regions when company is over. I shall wait.” Or like Christina Aguilera saying, “Many sex symbols attain their status through mystique, not fashion harlotry. Today I’ll wear a sweater.” These things just don’t happen.
By now the ex-boyfriend is a train conductor, and the train is skimming the ocean. (“Does that make him a Christ figure?”) You nod. You smile. You pretend to listen. And the moment you see a break in the conversation you look at your watch, frown and say: “Look at the time. I have to get home to make sure the furniture is still there. Bye.”
By the time your bottom has registered a victory on Operation Enduring Davenport, you’ve forgotten the conversation.
Your mind wisely pushes the useless information to the back of your brain where it rots with your sociology classes, the lyrics to “Hanging Tough” and any advice your dad has given you about leasing versus buying a car.
So anxious are you to resume the normal course of your life that you never stop to consider the totality of what just happened.
You’ve been robbed by a Time Burglar.
You might be wondering, what is a Time Burglar? Is it one who burgles watches and alarm clocks with AM/FM radios?
No. A Time Burglar is anyone who steals your precious time and leaves nothing of value behind. Cliff Clavin from “Cheers” was a Time Burglar. Others include George W. Bush, John Kerry and, well, just about anyone for whom saying something of interest is a career liability or intellectual impossibility.
Why bring it up?
Because there is no more destructive force in America right now than the Time Burglar.
You might say, “What about terrorists, serial murderers or the Colorado football program?”
To which I respond: They are all evil too, but we don’t invite the Taliban into our homes to watch basketball. We invite Time Burglars to dinner. We meet them for happy hour. We sit beside them at work.
And that is precisely the place a Time Burglar does the most damage _ work.
How many hours of productivity has the economy lost because Ted from marketing wants to give you a blow-by-blow of last night’s “Fear Factor?”
The average American worker makes $15.49 per hour. If my math is correct (and it should be _ I majored in journalism) that means that every four minutes you talk to a Time Burglar the economy loses around $1 in productivity. If all 139 million American workers lose just four minutes a day, that’s $695 million a week or $36.1 billion a year.
For the economy’s sake _ and for your sanity’s sake _ the next time a Time Burglar begins stealing your time, walk away.
Odds are they will not notice.
(Originally published 2/17/04.)
Click here to read the previous column “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”
If you have a comment, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.